MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — In order to tell the story of just how far the West Virginia men’s basketball program has come, we first must go back.
Back to when Emmitt Matthews Jr., Jordan McCabe and Derek Culver were just freshmen on a team that had high hopes going into the season, but those quickly fizzled into a nothing but frustrations that ended in the second round of the CBI.
WVU was 0-10 in true road games that season. A few of them were competitive. Most of them were not.
Add in a 4-4 record that season in neutral-court games and the Mountaineers were an unimpressive 4-14 away from the WVU Coliseum in 2018-19, which did include two wins in the Big 12 tournament.
Yes, those three returners are stronger and wiser and they are now surrounded by an entirely different cast of athletes.
Maybe that makes a difference, although you could probably scan through the 300-some Division I teams in college basketball and find a handful of them that have some experienced and talented players but are not playing well on the road.
The point? This 11th-ranked WVU program is 4-1 to start the season following Sunday’s 80-71 victory against Georgetown, at McDonough Arena in Washington, D.C., and the Mountaineers have yet to play a game in Morgantown.
“I can’t really give you a clear answer on that,” said Matthews, who finished with his best game of the season with 13 points and four rebounds.
Honestly, with this season being played under the blanket provided by the COVID-19 pandemic, just about everything has changed.
“We’re used to a game like this having 10,000 people here,” said WVU point guard Deuce McBride, who added 17 points, seven rebounds and seven assists.
“For the guys returning, we kind of go off the energy of the crowd. It’s tough to not have that.”
So, we go back to this 4-1 record. None of the games were played in Morgantown. All of them played after having been tested for the virus dozens of times before the players could even do something as simple as board a bus or plane.
None of them were played in front of a hostile crowd to juice them up. None of them were played with players having rested their heads on a familiar pillow the evening before.
And you could make the argument that had it not been for some obvious blown calls by referees in the Gonzaga game that this WVU team should be undefeated.
That is for another time. For now, you have to wonder if these Mountaineers have found the answers on what it takes to be successful playing away from home?
Maybe there is no clear-cut answer. Then again, after taking a moment to think about it, maybe Matthews came up with the perfect one.
“I can say this for sure: This is the most fun year I’ve had out of my three that I’ve been here for,” he said. “I think we’re just building on something great. We actually love each other. I tell guys I love them all the time when I get off the phone with them or leave their apartments. I think we’re a close group and we don’t want to see each other fall.”
If all goes according to plan, the Mountaineers will play 27 regular-season games this season. Fourteen of them will be away from Morgantown.
That is usually a recipe for disaster for any basketball team, whether it’s destined for the NCAA tournament or not.
But if this bunch has figured out what it takes to play well away from home, that is going to be one solid boost come March.
It could even make for a better seed for the Mountaineers in the eyes of the NCAA tournament selection committee, when they see WVU has played the majority of its games on the road.
“They’re great guys. They’re not low maintenance, they’re no maintenance,” WVU head coach Bob Huggins said. “They do what you ask them to do. They’re really good people.”